Mary Trevelyan (1897-1983)

Mary Trevelyan founded the International Students House, London.

Mary Trevelyan was born on 22nd January 1897 to the Reverend George Philip Trevelyan and his wife, Monica Phillips. Both Mary’s grandfathers were vicars and she was raised in a family committed to public service.The eldest of six children, Mary had a privileged childhood in a well-connected, upper-middle class family. As well as being the great great-granddaughterof a baronet, she was second cousin to the historian, G.M. Trevelyan. Mary Trevelyan grew into a determined, idealistic and energetic adult. Her friend, the poet T. S. Eliot, described her as ‘industrious, honest, and moderately temperate’ [1].

After beginning her career as a music teacher, Mary Trevelyan took up the post of Warden of the Student Christian Movement’s Student Movement House (SMH) in 1932. Situated at 32 Russell Square in London’s Bloomsbury, SMH was a non-residential club for overseas students. Among its members in the 1930s was Jomo (Johnstone) Kenyatta, later the first President of Kenya. Some members were Britons from overseas, such as those of missionary families.

In 1937, Trevelyan took a sabbatical to travel to Ceylon, India, Burma, Singapore, Penang, China, Japan, America and Canada. She wanted to learn about the worlds into which the international students were returning [2]. Trevelyan was particularly inspired by her visit to the residential International House of New York in the USA, and she returned to London fully committed to promoting internationalism and peaceful co-operation among young people.

From 1938, as SMH Warden, Trevelyan, led a fund-raising campaign to pay for a new building for the club. SMH’s Russell Square premises was set to be destroyed in plans for the London University extension of 1939. In April of that year, SMH moved into new premises at 103 Gower Street.[3]

During the Second World War, Trevelyan remained in post until September 1944, when she was granted leave of absence by SCM to go to Brussels to run a YMCA leave hostel for allied soldiers. After returning in May 1945, tensions developed between Trevelyan and her SCM employers. In 1946, after beginning an appeal for another new building Trevelyan resigned from her post and left SMH. But she continued to dream ‘of the great International House which we would set up in London’ in the model of the International Houses of the United States.[4] This residential House would offer greater opportunity for students of different backgrounds to ‘get to know each other better’[5]. Trevelyan’s dream became reality in May 1965 when International Students House was opened in Park Crescent. The current International Students House stands as her legacy.

Written for Sheroes of History by Emma Jolly, genealogist & writer.

Useful Links

International Students House official website:

Student Christian Movement


[1] Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1691.2, T. S. Eliot’s Letters to Mary Trevelyan (1940-1956), 28 September 1946.

[2]Mary Trevelyan, From The Ends of the Earth: An account of the author’s experiences as Warden of the Student Movement House (London: Faber & Faber, 1942), p. 70.

[3] 101 Gower Street was acquired in 1943 [SCM: SMH: S1. Sixth Annual Report, 1943-44].

[4]Trevelyan, From The Ends of the Earth., p. 115.

[5]Trevelyan, From The Ends of the Earth, p. 115.

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Yennenga – Warrior Princess

Yannenga was an African princess who lived over 900 years ago. She was known as a brave warrior and famous for her strong spirit. Today she is considered to be the mother of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso and is has become a cultural icon.

Much of what we know about Yennenga today comes from oral tradition; stories that have been passed down through history. In some stories Yennenga is known as ‘Poko’ or ‘Yalanga’.

Yannenga was the daughter of King Nedega, who ruled over the Dagomaba Kingdom (which is now part of Northern Ghana.) Yennenga’s three brothers all commanded their own battalions, and as she grew Yennenga also learnt the skills of a warrior. She was an expert horse rider and learnt how to use a javelin, spear and bow. She was a match for any of the men in her father’s armies, and soon she led her own command.

She led her army to success in many battles, especially against the neighbouring Malinké people. Across the land she became known for her skills in battle, becoming a feared warrior. She is sometimes known as ‘Yennenga the Svelte’, as she was very tall and slim; and sometimes mistaken for a man when she rode with her battlion in her battle clothes. She was so important to her father’s battle plans that as she reached the age where most of her friends were getting married, he banned her from doing so.

Yennenga continued to be obedient to her father, but she was tired of being in battles all the time, and wanted to fall in love and marry, like so many of her friends had. No matter how much she asked, her father continued to refuse her this request.

One story tells us that Yennenga planted some wheat outside of her father’s house. When the wheat grew, instead of harvesting it she left it to wither and die. When her father angrily asked her why she had done this she told him that he was letting her rot, just like the wheat had done.

He wasn’t very happy that she had spoken to him so boldly and some stories say that he imprisoned her! Whether or not she was imprisoned by her father, very soon she escaped and disappeared into the forest on her stallion, dressed as a man so she wouldn’t be quickly found.

No-one knows for sure how long she was there, but at some point she met a well known elephant hunter called Riale. He soon discovered that she was a woman, and a skilled hunter as well. Soon romance blossomed and Yennenga and Riale fell in love and had a child. They called their son Ouedraogo, which means ‘Male Horse’ or ‘Stallion’, this was as a tribute to the horse which had taken Yennenga into the forest where she met Riale.

Ouedraogo grew to become an important leader and founded the Mossi Kingdom, which is why Yennenga is known as the mother of the Mossi people.

Today in Burkina Faso, and across the region Yennenga’s legacy remains. There are statues of her, roads named after her and even an African film award which is known as the Yennenga Gold Stallion and has a golden woman riding a horse with a spear on top. The national football team of Burkina Faso is even called  ‘Les Étalons’ which means ‘The Stallions’, after Yennenga’s famous horse.

Her story has inspired many, who see her as a symbol of a woman with a strong character and an independent mind.


Find out more:

It’s quite hard to find information about Yennenga, as so much of what we know is from oral traditions.

UNESCO have a fantastic resource of their website with several interactive ways to find out more about Yennenga and her story. 





Lorna Wing

Lorna Wing (1928 – 2014) became one of the world’s leading experts in autism; she died in June this year.

Lorna was born in Kent and trained as a medical doctor, specialising in psychiatry.  She met her future husband while studying medicine and they had a daughter, who was diagnosed in 1962 at the age of three with autism.  This led Lorna to change the focus of her work to childhood developmental disorders and her work was ground-breaking.

As a researcher she refined the sub-groups within a diagnosis of autism, coined the term Asperger’s syndrome (to describe behaviours observed by the Austrian psychiatrist, Hans Asperger) and contributed to the eventual development of autism as a spectrum condition.  She also described the “triad of impairments” which all people with autism show.  Researchers following Lorna owe a great debt to her work.

Lorna was one of the founders in 1962 of the National Autistic Society.  She published many books and articles.  The Autistic Spectrum, for parents and professionals, first published in 1996  is still popular and a valuable reference. She campaigned for better understanding of services needed by people with autism and their families. Her work was honoured with the award of an OBE in 1994.

To show how far we have travelled since Lorna Wing began her work, we need to understand that autism was a little known condition when her own child was diagnosed.  At that time most children (and adults) with autism would live in hospitals and institutions.  There would be no attempt at education; instead staff would concentrate on trying to train the children to have limited self-care skills.  Mothers were routinely blamed by doctors for their children’s difficulties in socialisation.

Lorna used her scientific training to challenge how autism was understood and to inform professional best practice and expectations.  Her work, with which she remained involved, until the end of her life, has been hugely influential in bringing about change and improving the quality of life for those with autistic spectrum disorder and their families.


Written for Sheroes of History by Geraldine Dora: “About me – I work in admin in Higher Education and I have an autistic child myself (he is grown up now).  Lorna Wing’s books certainly helped me over 20 years ago understand my son’s behaviour at a time when I was having difficulty obtaining a diagnosis and thus appropriate support and education for him.  She gave me the language to describe what I was seeing.”

Find out more:

You can read the National Autistic Society’s obituary for her here and a more detailed obituary from The Telegraph here.

A number of Lorna’s books are available to buy & read.

Watch this interview with Lorna here:



Helen Keller

At the Visitors Center to the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, there is a statue of Helen Keller as a young girl, next to a water pump. The statue depicts the famous ‘eureka’ moment when she first connects the word water that her teacher was trying to teach her in sign language, to the water itself. This is the enduring image of Helen Keller, the little blind and deaf girl who learned how to interact in the world through the patience of her teacher and overcame her obstacles to eventually go to Harvard. All of which is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Helen Keller was born in rural Alabama in 1880, and was born able to see and hear.  She contracted scarlet fever before her second birthday and the illness robbed her of her sight and hearing.  When Helen was 6, her mother decided to find outside help for her daughter and brought Anne Sullivan, visually impaired herself, to be Helen’s teacher.

Anne Sullivan managed to break through to Helen with the water pump incident described above, and remained her teacher companion for 49 years, until Sullivan’s death.  Sullivan accompanied Keller all the way through her schooling, signing words into Keller’s hand so that she could understand the material. Helen Keller was accepted to Radcliffe College, which at that time was a separate women’s college and has since been incorporated into Harvard University. She became the first deaf blind person to earn a BA, in 1904.

Keller was already well known by the time she graduated from college, but went on to become world famous for her writings, speeches and advocacy.   Many people assume that she was an advocate for persons with disabilities, which indeed she was, but what is generally left out of the narrative of Keller’s life is that she also became a radical socialist.  The traditional narrative of Keller’s life becomes a bit hazy after she graduates from college, mostly because she became very controversial.

In her advocacy of persons with disabilities, Keller wanted to learn as much as she could about the causes of blindness and deafness.  She discovered that blindness was not randomly distributed throughout the population, but that there was a much high concentration of blindness in the lower classes.  Inadequate health care, industrial accidents, poor nutrition, prostitution and lack of access to medicine were all factors; all things that could be improved through better working conditions and better government assistance for the poor.

Through her advocacy for the blind, Keller gravitated toward socialism and became a member of the Socialist Party. She was also a feminist, an early advocate of birth control and helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union.  She was a staunch opponent of both Woodrow Wilson and America’s involvement in World War 1.

Helen Keller continued her advocacy for the rest of her adult life, becoming more radical over time, supporting socialist Eugene Debs in his candidacy for President, among other things.  She was criticized for her views, and many who had formerly praised her for overcoming such large obstacles, later chose to use those obstacles as an excuse for her radical beliefs.

Keller was slowed by a series of strokes in the 1960s, and died at her home in Connecticut June 1, 1968, weeks shy of her 88th birthday.

Written for Sheroes of History by Rebecca Fachner who is a writer, tour guide and self described “free range” historian, roaming freely over the landscape of the past. @rjf630


Find out more:

Helen Keller wrote about her experiences in a book The Story of My Life, which is still available to read today. Fine it here.


You can visit the Helen Keller Birthplace in Alabama and find out more about her on their website here.

You can read many of Helen Keller’s letters on this blog.

Watch this video of Helen Keller speaking: 


The Women of the Special Operations Executive

During the Second World War the UK’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) had around 50 agents who were female. A small number of these women became fairly well-known, the best examples of these are Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom- Hallowes, and Noor Inyat Khan.

Many of the other female agents can be considered as fairly unknown characters in our history. Some agents found a little fame after the war that had nothing to do with their wartime service for example Lorraine Adie Copeland, wife of CIA agent Miles Copeland, mother of Stuart Copeland and brilliant archaeologist.

Alongside their male counterparts these women learned to parachute, use weapons and explosives, and became professional saboteurs. Violette Szabo’s weapons instructor claimed that she was one of the best people with a gun he had ever taught.  Sources such as M.R.D. Foot, mention that the majority of these brave women refused the offer of their L pill. This was a cyanide capsule used if caught by the Nazis.

Capture by the Nazis was the main hazard for these women who were operating behind enemy lines, meaning torture and execution; male agents were executed less often. Out of 50 female agents 15 died while on active service, 12 were executed in the concentration camps of Dachau, Ravensbrück and Natzweiler-Struthof, one died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen, Hannah Szenes was executed in Budapest and Muriel Byck died in service of Meningitis. This gave the women of SOE around a 30% casualty rate.

From many sources we know the story of Violette Szabo’s fatal second mission. Szabo, her SOE commander Philippe Liewer (Hamlet) and two colleagues were dropped into France early on 8 June 1944. On 10th June, Violette set off on her mission, in a Citroen driven by Jacques Dufour. Dufour insisted upon using the car, even though the Nazis had forbidden the use of cars after D-Day.

On their way across south central France they picked up Dufour’s friend Jean Bariaud. Unfortunately, the car had raised the suspicions of the Nazis and an unexpected roadblock had been set up to find the battalion commander of the 2nd SS Panzer Division, who had been captured by the local resistance. When Dufour slowed the car, the unarmed Bariaud was able to escape and warn Liewer’s team of the suspected arrest of Szabo and Dufour. When they stopped, Szabo and Dufour engaged the Germans a brief gun battle. They attempted to escape, providing each other with covering fire, and Dufour was able to evade and hide in a friend’s farm. Violette however had sprained her ankle and was captured near Salon-la-Tour.

Violette was placed in the custody of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) in Limoges, for four days. Then she was moved to Paris and brought to Gestapo headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch for interrogation. She was tortured by the SD, who by now knew she was an SOE agent.

Violette was then transferred to Ravensbrück where she arrived on 25 August 1944.She would endure beating and bad treatment up to her execution on 5 February 1945

Violette’s tale is one story among fifty, most of which we don’t know. Violette and the other SOE agents are true Sheroes of Freedom and History and must not be forgotten.

This blog was written by Mary Miles BA(Hons). Mary is a historian planning on doing a PhD centred on the women of SOE. She runs her own blog at runs 3 historically led Facebook pages and can be found on twitter as @tzarinadraconis 

Find out more…

Have a look at this list of ten female spies from the Second World War.

 Here is a complete list of all the women who worked for the SOE during the Second World War.

The Heroines of SOE is a book about some of these brave sheroes.


Emilie du Chatelet

This week’s post is written for us by Eileen Tull, who is directing a workshop of a play about Emilie du Chatelet’s life.

I’ve always been something of a history nerd. I come from a long line of history teachers, so I grew up watching Ken Burns’ documentaries, voraciously consuming books about historical figures, and enduring my father’s repetitive jokes about the battle strategies of the French. What most fascinated me, though, was the ever-evolving role of women in history, from Queen Elizabeth to Sacajawea to Carrie Nation to Eleanor Roosevelt.

As I grew up, I began to pursue my creativity passions: the theatre! Through my career, I have created a handful of theatrical projects stemming from history or relating to historical figures in some way.

My itch was truly scratched when I moved back to my adopted hometown of Chicago, met local artist and writer Jyl Bonaguro, and signed on to direct a workshop of her new play Urania: The Life of Emilie du Chatelet.

I knew nothing of Madame Emilie until I received Jyl’s script, an epic covering dozens of years in 18th Century France. Reading through the script and researching Emilie’s life, I was stunned that I had never heard of this amazing woman. That she had become somewhat of a footnote of history, remembered more for her salacious love life instead of her ground breaking work as a scientist and translator, seems almost a crime.

Emilie grappled with the works of Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke, providing commentary and criticism on some of the most widely accepted ideas of the time. She bucked the contemporary style of watering down writing for a female audience (Newton for the Ladies, for example), and unabashedly wrote at a high level directed to an audience of both sexes. And she was very public about all of it. She sought publication, submitted letters of dissent to academic journals, and conducted scientific experiments in her home. Her exploits were widely known throughout France.

Our play chronicles her life, her works, and her loves, the most notable and tempestuous being Voltaire, the scathing writer and philosopher. What I adore about Emilie’s story and this script is that she is unapologetic. She is unashamed of her desires, whether she wants to create lasting work, be published for all to read, or immerse herself in a passionate relationship. I see myself in Emilie, particularly in the insatiable drive that moves her through work and love.

She eventually died due to complications of childbirth, as her last pregnancy occurred when she was forty-two, an incredibly dangerous scenario at the time. The infamy she had gained in life soon wore off with her death, and her name is now barely recognized in popular culture or history.

We hope this play can reveal her story and spread it further, a stone producing infinite ripples.

Eileen Tull is a performance artist, writer, and theatre creator. You can follow her on Twitter @Tullie23

URANIA: The Life of Emilie du Chatelet plays in Chicago, IL on July 25th and 26th at 7:30PM. Reservations can be made here.

For more information about the play, visit the Facebook page here.

You can find out more about Emilie’s life here.







Anne Bonny & Mary Read – Swashbuckling Sheroes!

Anne Bonny and Mary Read are two of the most well known female pirates who ever lived! They sailed the seas of the Caribbean, gaining a reputation for how fearsome they were.

Anne Bonny (then Cormac) was born in Ireland in 1702, while Mary Read was born in Plymouth around the same time (no-one knows the exact year she was born.)

Anne’s father was a wealthy man who had left his wife for her mother, who was a servant. When Anne was a child her father dressed her up as a boy and said that she was his nephew, to avoid the shame of having a child with a woman he wasn’t married to. Eventually, when Anne was a young child, their family left Ireland to travel to the ‘New World': America.

When she grew up Anne married a poor sailor and part time pirate, James Bonny. Her dad was not best pleased and cut ties with Anne, so she and James sailed to New Providence in the Bahamas – an island that was known as a pirate haven.

While Anne took to the lifestyle like a duck pirate to water, James became an informant, signalling the end of their marriage. By this time Anne had met the original Captain Jack: not Sparrow, not Harkness, but Rackham, known as Calico Jack because of the material his clothes were made out of. They fell for each other and, as was the practice at the time, the governor of the island declared that he could ‘buy’ her from James, which would end their marriage.

As you may imagine Anne wasn’t too pleased about this suggestion; no man could buy her! The governor ordered that she be flogged instead –  her husband James was petrified that if this happened she would kill him! Luckily for everyone, her and Calico Jack took things into their own hands and escaped to sea together in a ship they stole named Revenge.

Soon she would meet the woman who would become her famous partner in crime, Mary Read, who had ended up in the same place at the same time.

Despite the difference in their lives up to that point, there was one unusual similarity in their childhoods. Mary’s father had been a sailor, but had died when she was young. In order to survive, Mary’s mother dressed her as a boy too! This was so she would continue to get money from her mother-in-law (Mary’s paternal grandmother) – who didn’t like girls!

The ploy worked, and eventually Mary was employed as a ‘footboy’ (a servant) for a wealthy French woman. She didn’t enjoy this and ran away, taking to the sea. As she grew she continued to hide her identity and dress as a man – she even managed to join the British Army and served as a soldier in Flanders. Her disguise came unstuck however when she fell in love with another soldier; she revealed to him that she was, in fact, a woman and they married shortly after.

After a happy few years running an inn, sadly Mary’s husband died. At this she went back, first to the army, and then to the sea. She sailed on a Dutch ship all the way to the Caribbean, and when her ship was boarded by pirates – she became one of them!

Shortly after this their ship was caught and Mary became a ‘privateer’, someone who was out to catch pirates! But with a ship full of other ex-pirates the good intentions didn’t last long – and soon the whole crew had mutinied, choosing to return to the pirate life.

It was around this time that Mary, still dressed as a man, and going by the name of ‘Mark’, found her way onto the Revenge.

No-one knows exactly how, but soon enough Anne Bonny realised that ‘Mark’ was in fact a woman. Some stories say that Anne was also dressed as a man, and that they found each other out! She kept Mary’s secret and the two became very close friends – so close in fact that Calico Jack started to become jealous. He didn’t know that ‘Mark’ was Mary and grew suspicious of their relationship. When he challenged them they were forced to reveal the truth about Mary. Some accounts say that Anne and Mary were indeed romantically involved with each other, and that Jack was happy to give them his blessing, but we’ll never know for certain!

Either way the two women became known across the seas for their fearsome fighting and tempers, once being described as ‘fierce hell cats’! Their reputation grew and grew; the chances are no-one would have remembered Calico Jack if it hadn’t have been for his two formidable female crew mates.

Alas, all things come to an end, and in 1720 Revenge was boarded and captured by a pirate hunter called Captain Jonathan Barnet. Accounts of the capture described how the men on board, drunk from too much rum, cowered below deck, while Anne and Mary bravely fought above. Despite their efforts the crew was caught, and all the men sentenced to hanging.

The only reason that Anne and Mary avoided the same fate was that they ‘pleaded the belly’, that is to say they were pregnant, and the law forbade the execution of pregnant women.

Unfortunately Mary soon passed away all the same, dying of a fever the following year while still in prison. No one knows exactly what happened to Anne, some say that she returned to her father, or even her husband. Others imagine that she assumed a new identity and returned to the sea to live out her days as a pirate!


Find out more:

Check out this list of ten other awesome female pirates!

Most of what we know about Anne Bonny and Mary Read comes from an account written by Charles Johnson called A General History of the Pyrateswritten in 1724. You can look through an old version of this book online here, and you can still buy the book today if you wanted to read it yourself! (Available here, free on Kindle.)

Here is a short cartoon about the two women: